At the Movies

Michael Wood

The first time the name appeared in the movie I thought I had misheard it. The second time also. It was only when I read a few reviews and plot summaries that I could confirm that I wasn’t dreaming, inserting an unlikely joke where there couldn’t be one. The precious mineral found only on the planet Pandora which would, if mined and transported, cure the wrecked energy system of the abused planet Earth, is indeed called unobtanium.

The movie is Avatar, and the name is not exactly a joke, more like a labelling of narrative machinery, as if James Cameron, writer and director of the work, had decided to call his McGuffin Mr McGuffin. Why would he do that? Because he can, is the short answer. But also because he is trying, as he says in a New Yorker interview, to put ‘a patina of reality in what is basically fantasy’, and the point is the patina rather than the reality, or indeed the fantasy. Unobtanium is patina ceasing for a moment to pretend it’s anything else; and it is, as it happens, unobtained.

The point of the much touted hi-tech wonders of this film, the sleek and amazing invisibility of any sort of gap or transition in it between photographed human figures and digital construction, is not illusion but once again patina. We are supposed to ‘lose track’, in Cameron’s phrase, of what is real (i.e. pre-digital) and what is not; and we do.

This is true of the content of the film as well as its technology. No alien grunt or gesture or ritual or chunk of psychology that doesn’t have a source in westerns or Tarzan movies; no extraordinary winged, beaked or clawed creature stalking the forest or the sky that doesn’t look like a spectacular bad dream from a natural history museum. This is how fantasy works, of course. There are no unicorns, but there have always been plenty of horns and horses. The game, as Cameron perfectly understands, is not to deny the fantasy but to make it look as real as anything else, and to leave plenty of parallels to other realities in the air. Of his great battle scene he says it’s helicopters v. pterodactyls, and he is content to call his lithe and huge-eyed alien heroine ‘the blue chick’. Spectacular flying is what matters, and a chick is still a chick, whatever the species.

This rather reductive view is qualified somewhat by the fact that after having thoroughly humanised the aliens – there’s a long line of mortal princesses, starting with the one in the Odyssey, who pick up stray heroes and take them home to meet mum and dad – the movie (sort of) makes the human alien, since the hero stays on Pandora to marry the princess. He does have to abandon his human body to do this, and the plot takes a huge amount of trouble to avoid the possibility that aliens and humans could meet each other on anything other than a war footing without a species change. Humans can’t breathe the air on Pandora, and you wouldn’t want to get married in a mask.

Here’s how the story goes. The earthlings, known locally as the sky people, have a military mission on Pandora, driven in part by the quest for unobtanium, and in part by the obsession of US marines, at least in the movies, with constantly finding new hellholes worse than the last. A scientific team has come along, led by Sigourney Weaver, whose task appears to be merely ethnographic – that is, to find out all she can about the natives, called the Na’vi – but who must know that her sponsors think of anthropology as espionage by other means. Either the Na’vi will move from their residence above the unobtanium, or they will be blown away. The only interesting or mildly original element in all this, and the source of the film’s title, is the method used for studying the locals.

In the old days anthropologists used to go native for scientific reasons, at least till the project was over, but as far as I know none of them thought of having his or her DNA fixed in order actually to be a native for a bit. Lack of technology maybe. In this movie the trick is to do the fieldwork (and deal with the breathing problem) by going to sleep and inhabiting a Na’vi second self, becoming an avatar of otherness, complete with long tail, striped skin, blue face, flat nose and an extra foot or two of height. Our hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), likes the role especially because in his human form he has lost the use of his legs, and as his avatar he can behave like the hero of a Japanese comic or a kung fu movie. There’s a lot of archery too, and Jake gets to ride a succession of dragons known as direhorses, banshees and toruks, each one larger and scarier and redder than the one before.

The military destroy the vast tree home of the Na’vi, and at this point Jake gives up his ambiguous mission of learning the native ways so that he can rat on his hosts, and rats on his employers instead. This is an unequivocally noble act for two impeccable Hollywood reasons, one very old-fashioned, the other very up-to-date.

The old-fashioned reason is the princess (played by Zoe Saldana and a lot of computers). Ever since the days of Gary Cooper the guy who couldn’t sign up for anything as abstract as a cause has been able to sign up (for the right cause) because of a woman (or a chick, as Cameron would say). But Jake seems somehow to know too that the cause is right, because the Na’vi respect their planet and the sky people have ruined theirs and want to ruin another. This is the second reason for his crossing over to the Na’vi: sheer greenery.

When the princess saves his life by killing the various cyberwolves who are attacking him, he thanks her but she rebukes him for causing unnecessary death. So why did she save him rather than let the wolves eat him? This is where Cameron resorts again to sheer patina, alas in this case hokum rather than bare-faced artifice. A message from her god, in the form of floating puffballs, descends on her arrow as she is about to fire. She knows what this means. Jake has a ‘strong heart and no fear’, and she has to do what she can for him. Too bad for the wolves, but there’s ecology and ecology. By the time the great tree falls Jake is ready not only to abandon the American cause but to fight with the Na’vi. And does, once they have migrated to their sacred ground amid the floating mountains. Helicopters and pterodactyls.

On film this story doesn’t play as mushily as it might, in part because the implications of Pandora’s ecology are so well worked out. The Na’vi, especially when they congregate in their vast community circle, with their awesome angry chieftain and his even more awesome priestess wife, complete with jealous would-be son-in-law, may look like extras from every tribal encounter you have known Westerners to simulate, whether in a fictional Africa or America or Australia – or even New Zealand, where much of the film was shot – but their planet itself is an elaborate neural network of fronds and fibres and creatures, where everything connects as if by magic, a compelling image of an incomprehensible, unexploitable balance.

And the very idea of mush vanishes because of the looks of the film, where the forest takes over as the work’s first star, not because of its fancy, luminous flowers, which are more than a trifle kitschy, but because of its sheer green profusion, its endless pathways along fallen trees, its ever convenient lianas, and the alluring sense that anything could live here because anything could hide here. The film’s second, and even greater star is the landscape of the floating mountains, where the sky opens up and visually takes the place of solid ground. Great rocks hover in space, like Magritte’s Castle in the Pyrenees, only covered with ferns and tangled tree trunks, a model of gravity defied and fertility abounding. You could die here by missing your footstep on a cliff, or failing to manage the daunting dragon you are supposed to ride as if it were your trusty steed; but it would be a natural death, a death into nature, not a casualty of the politics of empire. It’s a nice touch that this dream of an organic Eden should be all artifice, and that it should cost so much: $460 million, they say. Nice too, for some, that it should make so much: $1.3 billion and counting.